In a boost for collaborative scientific research, two citizen astronomers have discovered a planet orbiting two stars whose group is simultaneously orbited by another two stars.

The planet, dubbed PH1 after the Planet Hunters project, is a gas giant located in the Cygnus constellation, 5000 light years from Earth. Kian Jek, of California, and Robert Gagliano, of Arizona, found the planet while studying data captured by the Keplar Telescope. 

Gagliano said that he was “absolutely ecstatic to spot a small dip in the eclipsing binary star’s light curve… the signature of a potential new circumbinary planet.” 

The pair made the discovery using the transit method, a common technique that involves searching for dips in light as a planet passes in front of its parent star.

Details about the planet’s surface and the view beyond remain left to the imagination but, much to Jek’s amazement, scientists have been able to ascertain key aspects of PH1’s environment.

“It still continues to astonish me how we can detect, let alone glean so much information about another planet thousands of lights years away just by studying light from its parent star,” Mr Jek said. 

The planet has an estimated temperature range of between 484 degrees Fahrenheit (251 C) and 644 degrees Fahrenheit (340 C). An orbit around both of its suns takes 138 days. With a radius about 6 times greater than Earth’s, PH1 is similar in size to Neptune, although many have likened the planet to the fictional ‘Tatooine’, a two-sun planet in the Star Wars films.

The discovery is the first confirmed planet found by Planet Hunters, a collective of non-professional astronomers who work in collaboration with NASA and Yale, and has been embraced by professional astronomers and enthusiasts alike. 

Bloggers on the Planet Hunters website were congratulatory, with one hailing the event as “an incredible discovery and an ideal example of the importance and power of crowdsourcing." 

Natalie Batalha, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, also expressed excitement at the prospect of future collaborations: “I celebrate this discovery as the fruit of exemplary human cooperation – cooperation betweens scientists and citizens who give of themselves for the love of stars, knowledge, and exploration.” 

Image by Kanijoman, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.